When discussing a course of treatment with your veterinarian, every option should be explored to ensure a pet receives the best care for their individual needs. Alternative veterinary therapies may be less commonly known or recommended than conventional medications or procedures. However, although research into most holistic remedies is still in the early stages, many treatments have shown the potential for alleviating several illnesses or injuries.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone imbalances in the adrenal gland may lead to a variety of health problems in cats and dogs, including Addison’s disease (caused by a deficiency of adrenal hormones) and Cushing’s disease (caused by an excess of adrenal hormone production). Another sign of adrenal dysfunction is pet allergies. The hormones cortisone and cortisol may be used to supplement the adrenal gland to regain balance and restore health.
Thyroid dysfunction is another common hormone imbalance. In the case of excess thyroid function in cats, anti-thyroid medications may be prescribed by a veterinarian to suppress thyroid production.
Spaying dogs deprives them of estrogen, which may lead to side effects such as urinary incontinence. According to Spaying and Incontinence in Dogs, “Proper function of urinary tract tissue is dependent upon adequate exposure to estrogen and after a pet’s ovaries are removed, her estrogen levels are low.” Common treatments often involve estrogen replacement therapy (ERT).
Although veterinary uses of hydrotherapy were originally developed for racing animals (such as horses or Greyhounds), treatment availability has expanded to other dogs and cats. Sessions are supervised by one or more veterinarians, veterinary technicians, or certified rehabilitation practitioners. Life vests are used unless the animal is already a confident swimmer.
In The Benefits of Hydrotherapy for Your Dog, C.J. Puotinen writes that “hydrotherapy stimulates the cardiovascular and lymph systems, strengthens muscles, and allows painful joints to move comfortably.” This form of therapy may be particularly effective in improving the quality of life of geriatric dogs, improving agility and energy levels. Because it promotes muscle strength and mobility, hydrotherapy is also helpful in preventing injuries.
Canine patients have benefited from hydrotherapy treatments for myriad conditions, including:
- Physical Conditions
- Arthritis or joint pain
- Hip or elbow dysplasia
- Ligament ruptures
- Bone fractures
- Difficulty exercising due to obesity
- Neurological Conditions
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Spinal strokes
Hydrotherapy uses a swimming pool or special underwater treadmill, typically filled with water heated to 80-88°F. The water level is gradually increased to acclimate the dog to its surroundings. Puotinen adds that saltwater is sometimes used because it’s “similar to the body’s own internal fluids and which is said to allow magnesium and potassium to be drawn into the blood stream while toxins are eliminated.”
Choosing hydrotherapy depends on the individual circumstances of the patient. Pets with certain conditions (such as heart issues or with open wounds) should not receive hydrotherapy. Others may not have the temperament to benefit from the process; for example, some animals have a severe fear of water or are too aggressive to be safely handled by the staff. Some pet owners may also encounter the obstacles of availability of this treatment, as the sessions may be expensive, time-consuming, or require travel.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald’s How Massage Can Help Your Dog explains that massaging may “reduce stress and anxiety, increase circulation, decrease pain, and strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Also, it can help to identify new growths at an early stage.” Massages are generally used for alleviating symptoms of arthritis but are also beneficial for warming up joints before activities or to soothe muscles after the activities are complete. While similar to hydrotherapy in treating muscle or joint conditions, one advantage is that the owner can learn to massage their pet at home, eliminating the obstacles of expense and travel.
Examples of Other Alternatives
Acupuncture and Acupressure
Acupuncture uses needles inserted at specific parts in the body where nerves and blood vessels converge. According to Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, “the needles enhance blood circulation which improves healing ability. Acupuncture also stimulates the nervous system and increased the release of anti-inflammatory and pain relieving substances to reduce a dog’s discomfort.”
Uses for acupuncture include pain-relieving treatments for:
- Arthritis, joint inflammation, or joint disease
- Hip dysplasia
- Chronic back pain
- Serious spinal cord conditions
Acupuncture may also be used to complement treatments for:
- Issues associated with cancer or side effects of cancer treatments (such as inflammation, nausea, or impaired appetite)
- Impaired organ function
- The thyroid conditions of Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease
Acupuncture sessions generally last 20-30 minutes. While there are few side effects to acupuncture therapy, some dogs may be stiff or tired for a day or two afterward. Acupuncture may be advantageous for patients that are in weak condition as it typically has no systemic side effects.
Acupressure is a similar, but less invasive, technique. This similar technique applies pressure to the points instead of inserting needles. Dr. Buzhardt says this method is “preferred for locations that are hard to reach with needles, or for dogs that may not tolerate the needles.”
Laser therapy (sometimes referred to as photobiomodulation) applies light to living tissues to promote health and wellbeing. According to Dr. Sarah Wooten, this method “harnesses laser light therapy to reduce pain and inflammation and improve tissue repair.” Dr. Brennen McKenzie writes: “The wavelength and power of the laser, the location and duration of exposure, the number of treatments, and many other variables are crucial to the effects achieved.” For medicinal purposes, low-level lasers are generally used.
Typically, low-level laser therapies include facilitating the healing of wounds and reducing inflammation and pain. Several other possible treatments have been suggested, including:
- Bacterial and viral infections
Like many alternative therapies in veterinary medicine, laser therapy’s benefits are not known definitively. Dr. McKenzie summarizes: “Some positive effects have been reported, but no consistent pattern of clinical benefit has yet emerged.”
As researchers learn more details about the medicinal properties and uses of these alternative remedies, more choices should become available for pet owners looking to improve the lives of cats, dogs, and other animals. In the meantime, if you have a sick pet, talk to your veterinarian about whether any alternative therapies might meet their specific treatment needs. Many holistic methods of treatment show the potential to help restore and optimize pet health, but should only be pursued under professional supervision.